What You Need to Know about Organic Labeling Standards

What You Need to Know about Organic Labeling Standards

Today, more Americans than ever are buying organic products. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by Nielsen in 2015/2016, organic food and other products can now be found in more than 80 percent of American households. That figure is growing all the time.

However, given how confusing and misleading some food labels can be, many consumers are concerned about whether or not they can actually trust products sporting the term “organic” on their packaging. If you’re one of them, read on to learn more about what’s really going on behind the label.

What products are allowed to be labelled “organic”?

Unlike a number of other commonly used food labels, “organic” is more than just a marketing term. In the US, only products that have been certified by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program are allowed to bear the distinctive green and white USDA organic seal, and/or to include the term organic on the principal display panel.

The only exceptions to this are small organic producers who sell less than $5,000 worth of products annually. These producers do not have to be certified to represent their products as organic. However, they do still have to comply with all the applicable production and handling requirements, as described below. Additionally, they cannot display the USDA organic seal on their products.

What does it mean when a product is certified organic?

Certified organic products must conform to strict and rigorously enforced requirements when it comes to how they are grown or produced. For example, for organic fruits, vegetables, and other crops, there must be no conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers used.

Organic livestock must only consume organic feed, and must be cared for according to the USDA’s animal health and welfare standards. These include things like providing the animals with regular outdoor access. No form of genetic modification or ionizing radiation can be used at any time during production or transportation.

The USDA’s organic regulations also encompass the use of sustainable soil management practices. Growers must also create adequate “buffer zones” to prevent prohibited substances from adjoining, non-organic land from making their way onto an organic farm or facility.

What is involved in organic certification?

The USDA’s National Organic Program is overseen by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). This is a 15-person organization whose representatives include farmers, handlers, consumers, environmentalists, and retailers.

The NOSB is responsible for developing the regulations and standards involved in organic certification. The certification process itself is handled by accredited third-party certifying agents.


In order to receive organic certification, a farmer or producer must apply to the third-party certifying agency. An agency representative will review the producer’s organic system plan and arrange for an on-site inspection to make sure that organic standards are being properly met.

After organic certification has been granted, annual follow-up inspections help ensure that the producer is consistently following the necessary guidelines. If a product is sold as organic without meeting National Organic Program standards, the producer can be fined up to $11,000.

Are there different categories of organic products?

Shoppers trying to buy organic products may be confused by the different labels that are used depending on the producer’s level of “organic commitment.” In general, certified organic products fall into three major labeling categories:

1. 100% Organic

This label is used for any product in which all the ingredients are entirely certified organic. Excluded are salt and water, which are always considered to be natural ingredients.

This includes value-added farm products like grain flours or rolled oats, which have no other added ingredients, as well as processed products which use only certified organic ingredients. Products that are 100% Organic can be labeled with the USDA Organic seal.

2. Organic

This label can be applied to any product consisting of at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. The remaining 5 percent of ingredients (again, excluding salt and water) are allowed to be non-organic. Organic products can also be labeled with the USDA Organic seal.

3. “Made with” Organic

When multi-ingredient products are made of at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients, producers are allowed to use the label “Made with Organic [up to three ingredients or ingredient categories can be mentioned]”.

In these cases, producers are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal, cannot represent the finished product as organic, and cannot use the more general phrase “made with organic ingredients.” In addition, the specific organic ingredients used must be identified with an asterisk or other distinguishing mark.

What should I look for if I want to make sure I’m buying organic products?

The best way to be sure that you’re choosing an organic product is to look for the green and white USDA Organic seal. This is the only label that indicates that a product is certified organic. It’s also the most comprehensive label.

Other labels, known as “single-trait” labels, may advertise that a product adheres to certain organic standards. However, this does not mean that other, unspecified organic standards are being followed. For example, a product could accurately be labeled “non-GMO” while still involving the use of conventional pesticides and fertilizers.

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here